By Clint Calhoun
I don’t know what it is about snow and ice that I find so attractive, but these two things are the very definition of winter for me. Most native North Carolinians cringe at the thought of more than a couple of inches of snow because it often means power outages and icy roads, bringing normal activity to a standstill. Bring it on I say! In fact, were it not for the possibility of some form of icy precipitation, winter would be my least favorite season. The days are short, colors are drab, and outside working conditions are fickle. Now don’t get me wrong, I am not a fan of freezing rain, and we do get our share of that, but if snow is in the forecast, then the opportunity for winter fun has arrived.
For many, winter fun means snow skiing, four-wheeling, sledding, and eating snow cream. I’m with you there, but I appreciate the more subtle aspects of a snow day, especially when I can explore the woods as the snow is coming down. This brings to mind one of my finest memories. Several years ago when I was still working at Chimney Rock Park, I had gone in to work on a particular morning, knowing that the weather was going to probably take a turn for the worst. Almost as soon as I arrived at work, it started snowing. By 10 am, the call was made to close the Park to visitors and snow was accumulating. The Sky Lounge staff were heading down the mountain. Rather than going home with the rest of the crew, I decided to stay. I headed up the mountain, responding to the chilly call of falling snow.
By the time I reached the top parking lot, there was already a couple of inches of snow on the ground and it was coming down hard. The retail manager and the elevator operator were still in the Sky Lounge so I went up the tunnel and got a lift on the elevator. I told the staff still left not to wait on me, but to go ahead and head down the mountain and if I needed anything, I would call the maintenance guys since they had four-wheel drive. My plan was to hike the trails in the snow. I ventured up on the Chimney and snapped a few pictures up and down the Gorge and then headed up the Skyline Trail. I worked my way up the steps to Exclamation Point where I was met with the silence of winter. I was utterly alone. The only sounds were the sound of the river down in the valley and the giant snowflakes as they pelted my coat. I gingerly made my way out the trail, taking in sights seldom witnessed by the ordinary Park visitor. As I hiked, I made note of the fact that even the birds had ceased their normal activity as they sheltered in place, waiting on the winter storm to bring its worst. As I got closer to the top of Hickory Nut Falls, I found the fresh tracks of a bobcat that had decided to venture out in the snow to see what kind of meal it could scrounge up. Given the freshness of the tracks, I knew that it was not very far ahead of me, so I slowly followed the tracks along the snow-covered trail until the cat’s destination diverged from mine. Rather than continue to track the bobcat, I continued on to my destination which was the top of the falls. By this time, huge snowflakes were falling and everything was covered with a beautiful blanket of snow. The snow-covered rhododendron growing over the trail created a beautiful archway, beckoning me into the threshold of nature’s splendor. I was rewarded with beautiful ice formations and snow-covered boulders in and around Fall Creek. To say it was beautiful would be an understatement.
Winter at the Park offered lots of photographic opportunities. Because the upper trails were closed throughout the winter due to ice accumulation, it meant that if one were to go out there, you were guaranteed to not see a soul and be rewarded with fantastic photo opportunities. One of, if not THE stupidest thing I ever did was decide to hike the entire Skyline-Cliff Trail in the winter, ALONE, with no fences. This would’ve been a bad decision on a good day, but with several inches of ice on the ledge that the trail passed over at Nature’s Showerbath, as well as significant ice accumulation at Groundhog Slide, I was truly taking an unnecessary risk because a slip would have meant a 200 foot fall to my death, but the tempting call of monstrous ice formations could be heard over the howling north wind, beckoning me to come and see. I don’t know if I should say it was worth the risk or not. I lived to tell the tale, so maybe it was. The pictures I got were amazing, as fangs of ice hung from overhanging rocks, giving outcroppings and rock faces monster-like features. Even the Devil’s Head had a long icicle hanging off its nose. This always led us to joke that Hell had frozen over.
On yet another winter day at the Park, we had experienced several days of very low temperatures, with highs never getting out of the 20’s and lows in single digits. I had never gotten any pictures of Hickory Nut Falls in winter so I decided to go to the bottom of the falls. It had been so cold that the falls were completely frozen over. There was no evidence of a waterfall; only a massive sheet of ice where a waterfall would normally be. On the west side of the falls where ice tends to accumulate most heavily due to the swirling winds that blow mist up the Gorge, the ice was so thick that it taken on a beautiful blue-green color. I could hear the sound of water trickling behind the ice and occasionally small chunks of ice would come raining down from the cliff face as the water did its best to shed the icy layer that covered it. I snapped my pictures and headed back to the trailhead, glad to get back to the heater in my truck. A few days later, the cold temperatures would warm up and the ice would begin to melt. From down in the valley it sounded like gunshots as those giant ice sheets broke loose from the mountain and came crashing down to Earth. It’s amazing how much damage a sheet of ice can do to trees and shrubs, and for that matter, anything else that happens to be under it. I watched a fourteen-foot ice sheet break loose at Nature’s Showerbath one time, and it was one of the scariest things I have ever seen as that mass of ice hit the ground, splintering trees and throwing ice shards several hundred feet from where it landed.
Recently I was going through some of the pictures that I had taken back in my days at the Park. It was so neat seeing so many of those winter shots and remembering how I got them. It reminded me of the beauty of winter and the sense of adventure that falling snow brings, as well as opportunities to see nature in slumber. Of course while nature sleeps, occasionally it snores, and even stirs, but will return to its undisturbed rest until spring finally decides to return. Hickory Nut Gorge is one of the most beautiful places on Earth, and I consider myself fortunate to have seen so many of the wonderful things that all four seasons bring.
Until Next Time!
Clint Calhoun is a naturalist and biologist, whose entire career has been spent in the wilds of Hickory Nut Gorge. Clint is currently teaching high school science at Lake Lure Classical Academy.